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Thursday, July 1, 2010 12:13 am

The unlikely co-conspirator

Was Lon Monk trying to steer the governor straight? Or was he rotten?

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Lon Monk
To many Illinois politics insiders, one of the more surprising aspects of this Rod Blagojevich saga is not that the former governor was arrested. Most of them knew for years that he was heading for big trouble.

The late Chris Kelly’s alleged misdeeds as one of Blagojevich’s top fundraisers didn’t stir all that much surprise. He was a high-pressure fundraiser who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. The conviction of wheeler, dealer Tony Rezko also wasn’t that far from expectations. The man was obviously up to his eyeballs in corruption.

But the name of the fourth person who prosecutors say was in on the alleged schemes to skim as much money as possible during the Blagojevich era has taken quite a few insiders aback.

Lon Monk pled guilty last year to a host of crimes. He admitted that he helped shake down a racetrack official for a $100,000 contribution in exchange for a bill signing (the money was never paid). He said he met with Blagojevich, Rezko and Kelly as far back as 2002 to discuss illegally divvying up the spoils of public office, and admitted that he accepted several $10,000 “gifts” from Rezko.

Monk comes from a well-off family, which most of his former friends and associates say they believed should have insulated him from money temptations. He didn’t need the cash, so why take it? They don’t have many answers to that question.

Monk was also a peacemaker while he worked as Blagojevich’s chief of staff. He was one of the few people who could calm the governor down and convince him to see reality, say former insiders.

The bottom line is that quite a few of the people around Blagojevich thought Monk was doing his best to keep the governor on the straight and narrow. And many are shocked that he has now admitted to being up so deep into Blagojevich’s corrupt ways.

I had several conversations with Monk over the years, including a few long, informal ones. Monk abandoned the high life in California as a sports agent to come to Illinois and work for his former law school roommate. He did it out of a sense of duty to an old friend and for a new adventure in life. He seemed to work hard and keep a low profile, and he never made phony excuses for Blagojevich, like so many others on his staff.

Many of Monk’s former friends and colleagues that I’ve spoken with over the past several weeks say they just don’t believe the stories Monk told Blagojevich’s jury about how he was in on it from the get-go. They claim that Monk must’ve been severely pressured by the government into telling lies, or at least embellishments.

Monk’s plea deal knocked two years off a possible four-year prison term. He certainly had a motive to cooperate as fully as possible and tell a version of the truth approved by prosecutors.

Other former administration insiders paint a different scenario. In their way of thinking, Monk may have thought that he would go along with the schemes in order to help steer his friend Blagojevich away from the worst abuses. In fact, his testimony indicated that he did do that on more than one occasion. Monk testified that he didn’t tell Blagojevich the whole truth when the governor was pressuring him to strong-arm that racetrack owner, for instance. He said he was applying maximum effort, but in reality did not.

There is, however, a third possibility which one very high-level former Blagojevich insider offered up, and which I happen to believe is probably the case. Monk may have had good intentions when he arrived in Illinois, but Blagojevich constantly played off his inner circle members against each other and Monk’s insecurity about his position in that circle may have led him to finally say he was going to get his own piece of the action.

Monk has, after all, admitted to taking cash payments from Rezko, so he may have just been a very good crook -- able to deceive just about anybody with his good looks and soft-spoken charms. In fact, that insider says Monk’s charm and good looks are “how he got away with it for so long.”

“He’s rotten to the core,” the former insider said about Monk. “He makes [Chris] Kelly look like Bambi.” Monk may very well have been the perfect front man for the loud and crass Blagojevich.  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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